Volition returns to its premier series for the first time in seven and a half years with a soft reboot that still goes hard where it matters.
Saints Row 2022 raised plenty of eyebrows, mine included, when it was first shown off and seemed like a toned-down restart for the franchise. While it definitely draws back from the grottier side of the Saints’ ethos, it’s very much in on the joke that it has gone ‘soft’.
Saints Row is a series I really fell in love with more and more with every sequel. The commitment to the bit of going a little bit more batshit bananas each time was a welcome one for a series that began life as just another gangbanging GTA-lite and culminated that run with one of the best superhero games ever made.
Spider-Man may have let you run up buildings and drop insane heights without leaving a scratch, but Spidey didn’t climb missiles to Aerosmith or wallop the Vulture with a wobbly dildo bat.
Saints Row Review (PS5) – The Reboot Is Still A Saint At Heart
Out With The Old, In With The New
This Saints Row reassures the player that it’s not forgotten its absurd side in the first hour of the game, which involves an intriguing flash-forward, a Fury Road-style car battle where the player has to survive a shootout on the roof of a car, and a fight atop a VTOL jet against a suave badass criminal mastermind over a dilapidated Western-themed movie set.
It’s not Saints Row 4 or Gat Out Of Hell kinds of ridiculousness, rather it pulls the series back in line with the kind of stupendous set piece chaos of Saints Row The Third.
The plot takes things back to the origin of the Saints, albeit in a different town and with a different cast. There are still connections to what was, but for all intents and purposes, this is a straight reboot of Saints Row’s story with all the lessons learned along the way flavoring this new run.
The new leader (played by you of course) starts as a corporate stooge for a private military in the city of Santo Ileso, a stand-in of sorts for New Mexico. You are struggling to get by alongside your longtime buds Kev (always shirtless), Eli (always thinking), Neenah (always tinkering), and mascot/pet/friend Snickerdoodle (always meowing the best advice).
A quite hilarious cock-up leads to the realization that ‘working for the man’ isn’t gonna cut it, and so the friends get into the startup business and, unlike most successful startups, are at least honest from the outset that they plan to cause misery, violence, and chaos as they rack up the cash.
Saints Row has long been about the relationship between its core group of Saints, but it’s not until now that it’s felt anywhere close to being a meaningful aspect of the story. Johnny Gat was pushed on high as the ‘character’ of the previous run, but in truth, he’s genuinely got as much personality and story impact as Kev’s waffle iron has in this game (no dig at either, that waffle iron gets an arc).
A Welcome Change Of Direction For The Saints
That was fine for what Saints Row was; an endearingly glib shot across the increasingly self-serious bow of Grand Theft Auto, but there’s no new material to work with there now. So a change of direction that brings some sort of humanity to a tale of a charismatic mass murderer with a rap game mentality, weird as that is, is actually a very welcome shift for the very unserious Saints Row.
The missions you can do for your in-game friends really tap into the things they are all about without being award-baiting guff. Eli, for instance, has a whole questline that focuses on his involvement in a citywide LARP that actually gets incorporated into the rules of missions. To the point where you only use a set of ‘fake guns’ and enemies don’t really die, but pull off dramatic ‘deaths’ when their health bars are depleted.
Even the takedowns, normally a brutal coup de grace special initiated by a press of the triangle button, see the boss pulling their punches as the foe hilariously reacts in kind and crumple to the floor with a hammy death speech.
That’s the first point where I was really thinking out loud. ‘This game is genuinely funny’. It has a very sharp sense of humour that goes beyond Deadpool-esque meta-quipping and gets why poking fun at the nonsense of both the gaming industry and reality can be great fuel for playful satire without punching down all the usual suspects.
Yes, you could call it surface-level satire, but it’s done well and perfectly in keeping with Saints Row’s bumbling badass style. There’s throwaway lines that genuinely made me laugh out loud, such as a murder for hire app’s less brutal origins being explained casually in a car chase.
The commentary on stealth in video games during the game’s only stealth mission manages to mock the absurdity of it and not end up being too hypocritical in its own execution of that. These things add an element of fun and surprise during the meat and potatoes of the task at hand.
Saints Row’s Combat Isn’t Perfect, But Missions Remain Top Notch
As with previous Saints Row titles, the Saints find themselves duking it out for control with other factions. The new set have taken aspects of some previous iterations, giving the same kind of dynamic found in Saints Row The Third. Marshall Defense Industries is the new Ultor, a corporate juggernaut with an arsenal of hi-tech weaponry and an overzealous sense of ‘justice’.
Los Panteros are the ‘standard’ gang, homegrown felons with a passion for criminal enterprise only matched by their love of cars. The third group is the anarchist tech cult known as the Idols. Unlike the other two factions, they exist only to get in the way of established order and tear everything down, including the fledgling Saints.
Activities and missions largely revolve around battling these three forces, asserting dominance and control of the world map by generally messing up whatever ventures they have going on. There are superb little Saints Row touches to the most mundane of missions, but in the end, the majority of missions and activities lead to one thing, gunfights against small armies.
As a franchise, Saints Row has had mixed results where combat is concerned. Guns and cars had basically become background facets of the player experience by the time Saints Row IV rolled out, but the upside was a big dumb fun box of tricks where the player feels mega-powerful. Before that, there was often a struggle to make gunfights and car chases feel consistently thrilling. A large part of that was the repetition and increasingly bullet-spongey foes.
This Saints Row still struggles to find its footing, especially in the many forced arena-style shootouts where things can drag on for far too long. It’s one part of Saints Row’s legacy I would have been happy to see put in a box in the attic in favour of something fresher.
To Volition’s credit, it has really tried to keep combat fun across the board with a host of tweaks and improvements to the pre-Saints Row IV formula, with a dash of that game’s traversal found in the wingsuit. As leveling up progress is made, players can add new skills and perks to change up their playing style.
The skills range from health boosts meted out by murder to fiery punches, and with only four slots available, there’s room for experimentation without making the player memorize thirsty extra button combos just to activate them.
Santo Ileso Is The Series’ Best City To Date
Driving gets an upgrade too, with Burnout-style car shunting now a component and as a passenger, the ability to get on the roof of a vehicle and take on a chasing pack with more accuracy makes for a nice change from the usual car chase shootout shenanigans. Admittedly these additions don’t really make for a better driving experience, but it drags a reasonable one up a level.
What strengthens combat and driving the most however, is Santo Ileso. My biggest criticism of every Saints Row game until now has been that the cities the over the top characters and stories inhabit have been completely unmemorable. They effectively sat there as a sandbox for the player’s shenanigans, devoid of personality. Santo Ileso manages to still be a great playground for using the game’s toolset, but it’s designed in a way that incorporates its character into the mayhem.
In a time of increasingly absurd game world sizes, Santo Ileso is surprisingly compact whilst giving off the illusion of something vast thanks to its arid landscapes stretching off beyond the bustling city. There’s space to play about in without simply having swathes of land for the sake of it.
It’s also the first Saints Row city that actually has some life to it. The pedestrians can be found doing all sorts of everyday activities that don’t have to involve the player. You can discover impromptu car crashes, police stopping others, people splashing in fountains, street bands playing, people eating al fresco at restaurants.
All in all, it’s a huge step up in terms of making the world matter, and it’s no surprise to me that Saints Row’s decision to be leaner in places others would happily stuff until bursting is what helps it stand out.
The other part of Saints Row that is felt most is in the central story. By open world game standards, this is quite punchy. I had hit about 45% of game completion and 12 hours by the time the credits rolled on Saints Row’s story which I must admit took me aback as I was almost certain it was just the setup for the true final act.
Looking back on it, I think a lot of this has to do with how the story takes a bit of a hit in pacing terms after the explosive opening hour, then speeds up immensely as the story reaches its climax. What works for me with this is that the usual issue of ‘mopping up’ after the credits roll on the main story is that it often ends up disjointed from what you’ve achieved in narrative terms.
Here, the Saints are still coming up, still looking to assert their power on Santo Ileso, so building a criminal empire further still actually fits the post-story time you get.
Long Live The New Saints
On the subject of building that criminal empire, that’s more involved than before. Yes, you still buy businesses to generate wealth, but each requires the completion of a subset of tie-in missions to maximize the revenue stream. This is where the activities return. In search of more moolah, there will be the need to battle post-apocalyptic warlords in the desert, cause large scale traffic accidents, deliver highly dangerous toxic sludge, and smuggle drugs around town in food trucks among other things.
These asides are a good time to be had away from the main story, and seeing each business as an actual distinct place in the game world ensures it’s not just buying up bricks and mortar sight unseen. Better yet, you get to choose where each of these ventures goes on the map, so my Santo Ileso can have a different makeup to yours.
Nowhere is that felt more than in the Saints HQ. What begins as the abandoned shell of an old church can be turned into a glittering focal point of Santo Ileso’s criminal world. Not only does the building improve and change as the story progresses, but by finding tourist spots around the city and snapping pictures of them, you can decorate the place with a variety of exotic statues, structures, and the like.
If you’ve ever wanted to make the centrepiece of your headquarters’ lobby a chained up portaloo, then this is the game for you.
The personal touch has been a really appealing aspect of this series, so to have even more of it on show here is wholly welcome. Saints Row is a tentative step towards an exciting new future that lays out a lot of the groundwork for that in improving upon many of the series’ weaker points. Combat still needs more, but the playground of Santo Ileso is easily the best overall in the history of the Saints, so it ends up being less of an issue than it could have been.
The Old Saints are dead. Long live the New Saints.
Saints Row is due out on August 23, 2022 for PS5, PS4, PC, Xbox Series X/S and Xbox One.
Review code kindly provided by publisher.